The two French photographers Elsa Parra and Johanna Benaïnous inhabit their images as fictional characters, creating cinematic scenes inspired by a strong sense of place. In the past, the Paris-based duo have staged their work in Calgary, Canada, and the Canary Island of Fuerteventura. Their latest series The timeless history of Moormerland, currently showing in Paris, is set in a small German town near the Dutch border. Parra and Benaïnous lived in several villages in and around Moormerland for a month in the spring of last year. They chose homes to stay in that had a kind of vintage charm, or flowery claustrophobia, depending on your perspective. They used these houses as backdrops to bring to life various characters – teenagers, young lovers, fathers, housewives – and stories from the 1950s onwards.
This image, of the couple embracing on a pier, is typical. The embrace is ambiguous, the staging a bit too perfect. The symmetry of the couple in his pastels capturing the inverted reflections of the seafront forces the viewer to provide a narrative framework. The scene is ghostly silent, though its drama is amplified by the title of the image: The sound of the Bell Tower. The more you look, the more you can hear that bell ringing through the water.
Talking about their work, the duo, who met at the New York art school in 2014, suggest the inspiration of Cindy Sherman, the great actress of American art, even if their starting point is as much geography as style. Johanna says: “We are like sponges that absorb the landscapes and, as soon as they are pressed, they spit out a colored liquid.” This process leaves a lasting mark: “We often talk about these characters as if they were old friends of ours,” she says. “We are a kind of receptacle for souls, even if we cannot incarnate them all.”